A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell

By Donald Worster | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 9
Democracy Encounters
the Desert

A smell of graft and corruption rose through the floorboards of the Grant administration, one dead rat joining another, until the public nostrils could stand it no longer. The president himself seemed indifferent to bad odor. If his house was full of rats, dead or alive, he saw no reason to do any cleaning. But disgust with this state of affairs, and with Grant's Republican Party, which once had proclaimed itself the party of virtue, was mounting across the country. In the election of 1876 both parties ran reform candidates for the presidency: Samuel Tilden, a Democrat, opposed Rutherford Hayes, a Republican. When Hayes, after losing the popular vote, won in the electoral college by an infamous compromise with white supremacists in the South, the stink got worse than ever. A new spirit of reform, however, was rising, and Hayes, a conservative Republican at heart, had to heed and try to join.

That irresistible wind blowing through Washington caught up Major Powell and changed his life. From his parents he had inherited a certain readiness to challenge power and authority in the name of principle. He could not have liked the degrading spectacle of the Grant presidency, though for a while he kept his principles to himself, sticking to his work until he could find support for reform. The evil he wanted to attack was the disposal of public lands in the West to private individuals, a subject filled with powerful implications for American society. Who got land and how much of it, how it was divided it up, were among the most critical matters to decide in the postwar years. Powell thrust himself into the very center of that discussion. Eventually the issue of public land reform made him one of the most influential—and one of the most hated—men in Washington.

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A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents *
  • Prologue - Green River Station, 1869 ix
  • Part One - Northern Days 1
  • Chapter 1 - A Mission to America 3
  • Chapter 2 - Rising on the Prairie 37
  • Chapter 3 - The Hornets' Nest of War 85
  • Part Two - Canyons of the Colorado 107
  • Chapter 4 - Westward the Naturalist 109
  • Chapter 5 - Down the Great Unknown 155
  • Chapter 6 - Surveying the High Plateaus 203
  • Chapter 7 - Kapurats 261
  • Chapter 8 - The Sublimest Thing on Earth 297
  • Chapter 9 - Democracy Encounters the Desert 337
  • Part Three - Washington, D.C. 381
  • Chapter 10 - Myths and Maps 383
  • Chapter 11 - Redeeming the Earth 437
  • Chapter 12 - The Problem of the West 467
  • Chapter 13 - Journey's End 533
  • Notes 575
  • Bibliography 611
  • Acknowledgments 645
  • Index 647
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